Gandhi and the Jews

Should the Jews, as Gandhi counselled, have submitted willingly to their Nazi oppressors?
February 29, 2008

Sixty years ago, on 30th January, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi. In May, Israel will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its controversial creation. These two narratives got unintentionally intertwined last month, raising questions about the universality of Gandhi's message as well as his views about Jews, the nature of the state and the limits of freedom of expression.

The vehicle for this reflection was Gandhi's grandson, Arun, a mild-mannered 73-year-old writer and peace activist, who until recently ran the MK Gandhi Institute of Peace and Non-Violence at the University of Rochester, New York state. Early in January he wrote on On Faith, a Washington Post/Newsweek blog: "[The Holocaust] is a very good example of how a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends… It seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty, but the whole world must regret what happened… When an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on, the regret turns into anger." Gandhi blamed "Israel and the Jews" for being the biggest players in creating "a culture of violence."

Predictably—given the disproportionate space the Palestine issue commands—all hell broke loose. Gandhi apologised, and later resigned from his post at the institute. Israel's critics were quick to blame the so-called "Israel lobby," which is supposed to control public opinion in America. Gandhi instantly became a martyr for Palestine activists—even though Palestinians have, on the whole, steadfastly refused to adopt Gandhian non-violence against their Israeli occupiers. Moreover, Gandhi's carelessly written blog post would probably have made his grandfather blush.

Or would it? Gleaning through the elder Gandhi's remarks, the picture that emerges is complex. This much is known: when asked what the Jews should do when they were taken to concentration camps, Gandhi said they should go willingly, their forced mass suicide itself constituting an unanswerable critique of the Nazis. John Lloyd, writing recently on Prospect's blog First Drafts, said, "To attempt to overthrow tyranny, or even to oppose genocide, became for Gandhi an act almost as bad as tyranny or genocide itself."

This position has been characterised as passivity bordering on cowardice. But it is subtler than that. Gandhi expressed great sympathy for the historical persecution of the Jews. He called antisemitism "a remnant of barbarism." He supported German Jews' right to be treated as equal citizens, and admired their centuries of refusal to turn violent. He wanted the Jews to assert themselves wherever they happened to be, as citizens of that country first (which is why he argued that the Jews should not attempt to form a homeland in historic Palestine).

Jews must insist upon non-discrimination and equality wherever they lived, he said: they should fight the Nazis by insisting on practising their faith freely, as equal citizens: "If I were a Jew and were born in Germany," he said, "I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment." A Jewish cry for a national home, Gandhi argued, would in fact provide justification to the Nazis to expel them.

What about Jews willingly submitting to their fate in concentration camps? Was Gandhi suggesting a Karmic, fatalistic response to inevitability? Perhaps. But there is another way of looking at that call. Gandhi wanted the victims to remain courageous, and to adopt positive non-violence—the strength not to use force—in dealing with the Nazis. "If the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from non-violence," he said, "Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men."

To the suicides, then. Committing suicide was forbidden in concentration camps, because the inmates were to be humiliated and objectified; they were supposed to possess no free will and no individuality. By suggesting they choose to end their lives on their own terms, it seems, Gandhi was calling upon the inmates to deny the Nazis a sense of superiority over their victims. This was not fatalism, but an assertion of will so strong that it could not be tamed. Even as the flesh was destroyed, the individual will retained its moral superiority.

Many well-meaning scholars have felt dismayed by this stance. They believe that even if what Gandhi said made sense on an intellectual and spiritual plane, at a practical level it was a disaster. The implication is that Gandhian tactics could work only against a power like Britain. For all its cruelty and draconian laws abroad, at home Britain was a functioning democracy, and Gandhi influenced British public opinion by shaming its colonial administrators before their own people. But, as Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy has asked, "Does militant non-violence work… when one of the parties to a conflict considers the other infrahuman, no different from a lifeless object, to be manipulated, exploited or kicked around?"

Gandhi was aware of this objection, but his goal was civilisational change; political independence was a way to that end. He once wrote that he could imagine the rise of a Jewish Gandhi in Germany, but that he would function for barely five minutes before being executed. But, he insisted, that would not disprove his case or shake his belief in the efficacy of ahimsa (non-violence). "I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators… The maxim is that ahimsa is the most efficacious in front of the great himsa [violence]. Its quality is really tested only in such cases. Sufferers need not see the result during their lifetime."

Can such an approach work today in the Middle East? Since the war, only a handful of leaders—Martin Luther King Jr, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama—have acted in ways that can be considered Gandhian. One modern thinker pursuing such a path is David Shulman, an Israeli academic deeply influenced by Gandhi. His recent book, "Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine," encapsulates his experiences as a witness to atrocities from both sides of the Palestinian issue.

Avishai Margalit, reviewing Shulman's book in the New York Review of Books, provides two reasons why Gandhian activism has never really taken off in Israel. He points out the difficulties: at the beginning of the first intifada, in 1988, Israel expelled Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American child psychologist who advocated Gandhian tactics. Israel's leaders understood Awad's potential to embarrass Israel. Margalit, however, believes Israel overreacted, because Awad was ineffective among Palestinians, who preferred violence. When Margalit asked his Palestinian friends why Awad failed, he was told: non-violent struggle is perceived in Palestine as "unmanly;" they believe that what was taken by force must be regained by force. Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian philosopher, has not lost hope; he is giving Gandhi another chance. And if there is to be less bloodshed and bitterness, his is the only way.

Arun Gandhi was not wrong in pointing out the universality of that message. But he was wrong in holding a people accountable for the bad conduct of the state. Rather than waste more time over the younger Gandhi's words, however, Israelis, Palestinians and their friends might want to reflect on what the older Gandhi said.